By Brent Frazee
When I heard that bass-fishing legend Charlie Campbell passed away on April 19, my mind raced back to a spring day in 2008.
I was in the boat with Charlie as he worked a bank on Table Rock Lake, and I saw how his eyes lit up every time he caught a fish. And he caught a lot of them that day.
There he was, 75 years old, and he still had the fire. I’ll never forget him telling me, “I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of fishing. It’s always been part of my life, and I think it will be until the day I die.”
I also remember thinking to myself, “I hope I still have that passion when I’m his age.”
But that wasn’t all that I admired about Charlie. He was one fishing’s true gentlemen. I never heard him talk badly about anyone else or curse when he was in the boat. He didn’t “big time” fans or reporters, as some in the game are prone to do. He was just a down-to-earth, all-around good guy.
He had every reason to have an inflated ego. He accomplished much in his years. He is best remembered by many as the king of topwater fishing. He perfected the method of “walking the dog” with a Zara Spook lure, zig-zagging it across the surface until it produced a vicious strike from a big bass.
On more than one occasion, I watched him “walk” a Spook almost completely around a flooded bush.
He caught a 10-pound, 4-ounce largemouth on that bait one spring day years ago. And to prove it was no fluke, he caught a 7-pounder the same day.
“That was a day I’ll never forget,” he said.
That was only part of his story, though. Though he was known for his topwater prowess, he caught bass plenty of other ways. On that day in 2008, we used plastic lizards to catch big smallmouth bass along a gravel bank in the Kimberling City area.
In between fish, we casually talked about what made Charlie so special.
By that time, we were friends, and I had done several stories on him. He invited me to his house one day and I was in awe of his finished basement, which looked like a museum. It was filled with trophies, old posters of the days when he was with Bass Pro Shops and framed pictures of him hoisting huge bass.
His story started when he would tag along with his dad to go fishing in the Ozarks.
“We would fish at night, and my dad had one rule,” Charlie recalled. “I had to hold onto the pockets of his overalls so I wouldn’t stray off.”
Charlie followed in his dad’s footsteps and became an avid fisherman. After graduating from Drury College, he began teaching and coaching basketball at Forsyth High School. His team won the state championship in 1973.
But his passion was rooted in fishing. He started guiding on Bull Shoals and earned a reputation for leading customers to big bass.
After winning the state basketball championship, he walked off the court and retired. “I decided it was time to go fishing,” he told me.
When he hooked up with Johnny Morris, the founder of Bass Pro Shops, his career skyrocketed. Charlie helped design the original Bass Tracker boat, field-tested Bass Pro products and worked in public relations.
He went on to compete on the BASS national tour, and qualified for five Classics. He retired from the pro game when his health started to deteriorate, but that didn’t keep him from fishing.
Even in old age, he fished several times a week in the Ozarks he so loved.
“If you like to fish, you can’t pick a much better place to live than the Ozarks,” said Charlie, who lived in Forsyth.
We kept In contact over the years and I was touched when he agreed to travel to Parkville to be the keynote speaker of our fishing club’s dinner.
The Ozarks and the fishing world are a poorer place now that he is gone.
We’ll miss you, Charlie.